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A Spine-Tingling Tour of the Tower of London.
November marks the start of dark, wintery nights when any sane person snuggles up in front of the fire in the evenings. For those with a robust constitution though, there’s an opportunity to see the Tower of London as you’ve never seen it before. Through the winter months until April 2020, on selected Sundays, you can visit the Tower at Night, guided by the Yeoman Warders around the battlements, through the courtyards, to Traitor’s Gate and the Bloody Tower.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Tower of London is usually very busy – nearly three million people visit each year. A Twilight Tour lets you see some of the key parts of the Tower of London when most visitors have left for the evening.
I take the Tower of London for granted ( perhaps like a lot of Londoners) and haven’t visited inside since I was in my early teens. So I jumped at the chance to go on one of this year’s first Twilight Tours. We even got to chat with two of the yeoman of the guards who took us around the Tower. Did you know, they live in the Tower of London, with their families in lodgings which date back to the 13th Century. They even have their own pub within the grounds of the Tower!
To become a Yeoman Warder, you have to be a former Warrant Officer or Senior Non-Commissioned Officer and have served at least 22 years in one of the Armed Forces. You also have to hold a long service and good conduct medal. And, then you need to be selected – competition is fierce and we learnt from one our guides that he was picked from 175 applicants! But, not many people can give their address as ‘The Tower of London’ and both our guides said they regularly had to pinch themselves when they woke up to make sure they were not dreaming.
One of their roles is to take visitors like us on tours around the Tower. The earliest part of the Tower, the ‘White Tower’ was built by William the Conqueror as a way to keep an eye on his new subjects. He actually picked a site that was originally a Roman Fort – as our guide said – what better foundations and you can see part of the Roman building at the base of the Tower, extending out into what would have been the Roman walls around the City of London. If you visit the Tower of London during normal opening hours, you’ll find the Royal Armouries collections, an original executioner’s block from the 18th century and more. The basement of the White Tower is thought to be where prisoners such as Guy Fawkes were tortured and interrogated.
The curtain wall to the north, east and western sides were built by King Henry III in 1238 and further major development was carried out by his son Edward I between 1275 and 1285. Although part of the complex was used as a prison, for the most part at this time, the Tower of London was a grand palace which was a royal residence.
In the 16th and 17th Century, the Tower of London became predominantly a prison and various members of the Royal Family ( for example Elizabeth the I, Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey were held here). Two of the wives of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard number among the 10 prisoners actually executed within the Tower on Tower Green – most prisoners were taken to the public execution site at Tower Hill.
The last execution was of German Spy Josef Jakobs in 1941 and the final prisoners to be held in the Tower were the notorious Kray Twins in 1952, who were both temporarily held in the military prison for assaulting a police constable who tried to arrest them for being absent without leave from their military service in September 1952.
We learnt that, although the Yeomen of the Guard are housed in the Tower, there are certain parts which are unpopular because they are said to be haunted. Stories are told of the two brothers, The Princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, of Lady Jane Grey and of Anne Boleyn walking around the White Tower with her head under her arm. Nevertheless, after a peek at the Tower of London out of hours, I think I’d be happy to put up with the odd ghost for such an impressive place to live.
If you are interested in a Twilight Tour of the Tower, tickets are priced at £27.50 or £25 for Historic Royal Palace members and can be bought from the Tower of London website